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Still beating the Bushes

Times Staff Writer

At a Silver Lake theater, George W. Bush is still depicted as a doofus manipulated by political puppeteers. In a Houston theater, Laura Bush continues her lesbian affair with her kidnapper. In New York, a play is still dissecting the administration’s actions at Guantanamo.

Wait a second -- wasn’t Bush reelected? Why are theater artists still on his case?

As the U.S. election season drew to a close, so did some of the theatrical depictions of the Bush years, both comic and somber. But several political productions are forging ahead, and others may well return now that they’ve got Bush to kick around for four more years.

Producer Aaron Feinstein, who just presented a short run of “Dubya and the Gang of Seven” in North Hollywood, says his postelection stagings were more successful than preelection. “It felt more necessary, like a purging,” he says. He hopes to revive the comedy, perhaps in time for the inauguration.

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Playwright A.R. Gurney, a well-known chronicler of the kind of WASP society that bred the Bushes, said he found a faint silver lining around the cloud of red states. “One of the few things that makes me feel a little better after the election is that ‘Mrs. Farnsworth’ might have more of a life than if Kerry had been elected.”

Gurney’s “Mrs. Farnsworth” opened off-off-Broadway in New York last spring and played to mostly sold-out houses through last weekend. In the script, a middle-aged woman is writing a semi-autobiographical novel that refers to a youthful affair she had with a man whose description is suspiciously Bush-like.

“I didn’t think the play would rearrange the political geography,” Gurney says, “but I wanted to express myself about the election.”

Other theaters that presented “Mrs. Farnsworth” before the election included San Diego’s ARK Center for the Performing Arts and Theater LaB Houston, in the heart of Bush country. “But most of the big regional theaters didn’t want to touch it,” Gurney says. “Maybe it won’t seem so threatening since Bush has been reelected.”

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Satire and fantasy

Small theaters in Los Angeles -- where Kerry led in the polls by a huge margin -- leaned toward satire. “Dubya 2004,” a wild fantasy that depicted the Bush clan as agents of the devil, was a hit at Sacred Fools Theatre, running through election night.

“Dumbya’s Rapture,” which opened only two weekends before the election at the Salvation Theatre in Silver Lake, is slated to run until the end of the month. Although his show employs caricature, it’s less a farce than “Dubya 2004.” “It’s not about the election,” noted writer-director Eric Diamond. “It’s about what led us into this quagmire.”

Still, he fears that voters may be ready to tune out politics for a while. “But I feel that now, more than ever, is the time for this show,” he says -- though he knows he’s preaching to the choir in Silver Lake. “It would be much better to go into the belly of the beast.”

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That’s where the impudently titled “Laura’s Bush” is still playing -- in Houston. This satire about an attempt to “rescue” the first lady (she’s been blinking signals in Morse code) was produced in 11 U.S. theaters during the presidential campaign, including at Sacred Fools.

Randy Symank, director of the Houston production, says the outrageous show is still going strong after Nov. 2; the only negative comments were from critics who didn’t like the script.

Such low-budget satires might be easier to revive than David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” a dramatization of the Bush war councils leading to the Iraq invasion. It closed Saturday after a sold-out run at London’s National Theatre, and there aren’t plans for another staging. That could be due to the cost of hiring 22 actors as much as politics, suggested a spokeswoman for director Nicholas Hytner. But, she added, “The audience seemed more subdued than usual on the day after the election.”

Another London-born play that examines the Bush doctrine, “Guantanamo,” made the move to off-Broadway, where it’s running through Dec. 19. Box-office receipts dipped leading to election day, says producer Allan Buchman (pronounced “Bush-man”), but are now rising again.

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So far “Guantanamo,” which is about the controversial detention of accused terrorists from Afghanistan at the military base in Cuba, is filling only about 60% of its 199 seats, on average. Some theatergoers, Buchman says, want “to forget about politics and do pleasant, mind-numbing things.”

Unabashed leftist Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America” and “Caroline, or Change,” rejects any such capitulation. “This is maybe the scariest time in the history of the planet,” he says. “There are people who make a living saying, ‘It’s over for the left.’ It’s baloney. We have work to do.”

Readings of Kushner’s work-in-progress “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” in which a Laura Bush character reads “The Brothers Karamazov” to dead Iraqi children, were used as fundraisers for progressive political groups. Kushner thought that after the election he would put the play away for a while. Toward the end of October, however, he began to change his mind.

“Some people are in their element writing in opposition to a certain political order,” Kushner says, “and I’ve always been one of those people.”

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Down to the wire

Some of the most extensive election-related rewriting was done by Gurney on “The Fourth Wall,” his play about a woman obsessed with Bush. For a new production that opened Nov. 3 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Gurney prepared two different scripts, depending on who won the election.

For example, he says, at the end of the Bush version, the woman prepares to go to Washington to talk to Bush; in the rewrite, she would have gone to remind Kerry of his new obligations.

“For these actors, there was good news and bad news,” says director Susan V. Booth. “The good news was that they didn’t have to change as many lines. But with the political leanings of most of these actors, the bad news outweighed the good.”

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Even “Avenue Q,” the Tony-winning Broadway musical, had to consider rewriting.

Near the end of the song “For Now,” one character sings, “George Bush is only for now.”

When, on election day, early exit polls indicated that Kerry might win, the writers called producer Jeffrey Seller to propose changing the line to “George Bush was only for now.” Seller decided that because votes probably wouldn’t be tallied in time, the line should stay the same. The next day, of course, it didn’t need to be changed.

“It’s not getting as big a laugh now,” Seller says.

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If “Avenue Q” is still playing on Broadway after the election of 2008, he says, “We’ll see a new line there.”

That is, if the new president isn’t named Jeb.


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